ILAS conference showcases industrial laser technology

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Is the UK a manufacturing nation? Maybe you'd be forgiven for saying no, not anymore. Many of the attendees of the Industrial Laser Applications Symposium (ILAS), which took place from 15-16 March in Warrington, UK, thought not when asked by William O'Neill, director of the Centre for Industrial Photonics at the University of Cambridge, during his plenary presentation. But the reality O'Neill reported is that the UK is the fifth largest manufacturing nation in the world, a surprising statistic for some there.

O'Neill’s talk centred on turning invention into innovation, something he felt could be improved upon in the UK, and sought to give a comparison between the UK and other nations in the field of industrial photonics.

One of the deficits in UK manufacturing he identified is the link between academia and industry, commenting that UK universities secure a lot of funding for engineering and manufacturing R&D, but are slow to deliver these ideas to market. O'Neill made the comparison with Germany, where the Fraunhofer institute excels at getting research into manufacturing. The UK government will be investing £200m over four years to various Technology and Innovation Centres (TICs), which O'Neill hopes will be run as a similar model to Germany's Fraunhofer institute. He was optimistic that the TICs will have a strong connection with industry, adding that it's important the centres have links with SMEs, which UK industry revolves around for the main part.

ILAS, a biannual event organised by the Association of Laser Users (AILU), included sessions on additive manufacturing, cutting and drilling, micro-joining, macro-welding, beam modification, and surface modification.

Among the cutting and drilling presentations, solid-state technology and fibre lasers cropped up time and again. In his presentation on the history of laser cutting, Dr Dirk Petring, group manager of macro joining and cutting at Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT), declared: 'In the thin section range, CO2 is dead. We have to see that.' Petring was referring to the greater productivity of cutting thin metals – defining 'thin' as being less than 4mm – with solid-state lasers at 1µm wavelength compared to CO2 lasers at 10.6µm.

The potential for material processing with high brightness lasers, such as fibre and disk lasers, was considered by Eckhard Beyer, executive director of the Fraunhofer Institute of Material and Beam Technology (IWS), in his keynote presentation. He highlighted using high-speed laser remote cutting, as an alternative to metal punching, for manufacturing electrode materials for lithium-ion batteries. Cutting speeds of more than 600m/min can be achieved with a 5kW single mode fibre laser with high quality cut edges, which Beyer suggested was twice as fast as the best alternative cutting machines.

Producing a high-quality cut is not always important though. Ali Khan, senior project leader at TWI, presented on using fibre lasers in nuclear decommissioning or dismantling ships. In these applications, the material just has to be severed irrespective of the quality of the cut.

Paul Hilton, technology fellow for laser materials processing at TWI, addressed specifically nuclear decommissioning, for which TWI has recently completed a project demonstrating the use of high-power lasers in this area. TWI's system used a 5kW fibre-delivered laser that was shown to remove 1m2 of concrete with a limestone aggregate to a minimum depth of 10mm in 110 minutes. Removing the top layer of radioactive concrete leaves the rest of the material safe to be dismantled by conventional methods.

The same system was demonstrated to cut stainless steel tubes ranging from 25 to 170mm in diameter with up to 11mm wall thickness. The difficulty was that the system had to cut the tubes from one side only. This means, at its thickest section, the laser had to cut through 47mm of stainless steel for an 11mm thick pipe. There is 88km of pipework in the UK nuclear industry, according to Khan.

Elsewhere, laser processing techniques in aerospace, automotive, medical, photovoltaic, and many other industrial sectors were covered. Janet Stoyel MBE, managing director of The Cloth Clinic, gave an insight into her work with textiles and using the laser as a design tool. Stoyel also received the 2011 AILU award for her outstanding contribution to the use of lasers in material processing.